There’s plenty of blame and shame to go around in Lee Hirsch’s Bully, a flawed yet compelling documentary that puts our nation’s bullying epidemic under the microscope. Shot in 2010, the film opens with a heart-wrenching look at Tyler Long, a boy who was the object of such hate and vitriol that he took his own life at the age of 17. We see home movies of him and he’s an energetic, happy little boy who’s willing to learn and eager to please, only to change into a withdrawn, frightened young man who would eventually hang himself in his bedroom closet. His parents, David and Tina, are shattered, wondering how such a tragedy could befall them. When they visit Tyler’s freshly dug grave, it’s almost too much to bear.
Bully has more than a few moments like this. When Hirsch trains his camera on the aftermath of events such as these or zeroes in on the assorted bullying victims he’s assembled, the film is a powerful exercise that’s sure to infuriate some and will compel others to act. These raw moments are so affecting they outweigh the film’s flaws, which are many. The director fails to give equal time to the young teens at the movie’s core. He never creates a sense of momentum, which should have been easy with material like this. But worst of all, the film is a one-sided affair, focusing on the victims, but never putting the bullies on the hot seat in an attempt to explore their motivation.
Hirsch has assembled an intriguing cross section of subjects, all of whom react to the violence that’s been directed at them in different ways. Ja’Maya Jackson of Yazoo County, Miss., a quiet athletic girl, took so much abuse that she pulled out her mother’s gun on the school bus to confront her tormentors. For this, she winds up in jail facing 45 felony charges. Kelby Johnson of Tuttle, Okla., finds himself ostracized and begins to receive death threats for revealing he’s gay. You get the sense that another Brandon Teena incident is just around the corner.
However, the most compelling story is that of Alex Libby, a 12-year-old middle schooler in Sioux City, Iowa, who’s so desperate for friends that he takes one incident of physical abuse after another, hoping he will eventually be accepted by his tormentors. He keeps the worst of his experiences from his parents until Hirsch shows them the footage he’s taken of Alex being beaten on a school bus. When this comes to light, the Libbys take action, only to have their concerns brushed aside by a clueless school administrator.
The most frustrating part of the film is watching those in authority bury their heads in the sand. When the Longs call a community meeting to discuss the bullying problem that led to their son’s death, no one from the area school board attends, while a state representative and law enforcement officials claim there’s nothing they can do. This sort of inaction stokes the anger of the viewer. Just what needs to happen to impel those in authority to do something?
However, we never know what they’re thinking, because Hirsch is a passive observer, which works to the film’s detriment. Instead of pressing those at this meeting for a reason for their inaction, he leaves these questions unasked. More maddening is the fact that he never sits one of the many bullies down to ask them what motivates them, what might be on their minds when they target someone weaker than them, what they get out of doing so?
Had he done so, then we might have gained some insight as to how to stop this sort of abuse at the source. The film fails to offer up any suggestions as to how to end this scourge, which only fuels our frustration. Perhaps this was Hirsch’s intent. Bully does succeed in lighting a fire in the viewer to act not only on a grand scale but a personal one as well. This is a rallying cry that begs to be, and needs to be, answered.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.